Thomas Lynch’s new collection of poems, The Sin-Eater, breathes life and contemporary language into a figure from ancient folk magic and thereby conveys a strange tale in accents that are endearingly familiar. Originating in legends from the British Isles, the sin-eater is despised by good Christians and pagans alike as he makes his living from the dead. As tradition has it, he would arrive before the burial of a corpse and consume bread and ale over the body, a ritual enacted in order to free the deceased from his sins, release his soul to heaven and prevent him from haunting the living. In return for this service, the sin-eater would be paid his pittance—usually by an impoverished and resentful widow—and driven back by the community into exile in the unsettled countryside from which he emerged. The gruesome nature of his work inspired revulsion in ordinary villagers, consigning the sin-eater to the margins of society, tolerated but never welcomed, despised if not rejected.
It is a brilliant imaginative choice on Lynch’s part to adopt the persona of this mysterious creature, to participate in the dark art he practices and to channel his consciousness. (The choice also seems inevitable, when we consider Lynch’s chosen profession; as an undertaker, he has labored over many a body, preparing the dead for the journey ahead.) Seen close up, Lynch’s Argyle (the sin-eater’s name, chosen both for its suggestion of the ordinary—namely, socks—and its homophonic resemblance to “our guile”) becomes a less fearful presence than he seems from a distance. Through the course of 24 poems—each of which is 24 lines long, a symmetry bespeaking the orderly mind of the supposedly disordered creature at its center—we become party to his loves and his loathings, his prayers and his nightmares, and his deep physical and spiritual longings. Argyle’s pilgrimage, as he makes his way across his ancient homeland in pursuit of his vocation and his salvation, becomes a version of our own. Argyle, the sin-eater, is appalling—and he is us.
The book begins by introducing our unlikely hero in his defining role: “Argyle the sin-eater came the day after—/ a narrow hungry man whose laughter/ and the wicked upturn of his one eyebrow,/ put the local folks in mind of trouble.” We see him, at first, from the outside and as the locals do—as a terrible creature who possesses magic powers, the ability to down “swift gulps of beer and venial sin” yet seems none the worse for his indulgence afterwards.
But the perspective quickly shifts. By the end of the poem, we are squarely in his head as he sets off in the direction of his next grim appointment: “Two parishes between here and the ocean:/ a bellyful tonight is what he thought,/ please God, and breakfast in the morning.” Argyle, as it turns out, is a far more observant, dutiful Christian than his righteous employers.
These poems are ripe with physicality and sensuality, fittingly so, given the primitive world Lynch evokes. The language, too, is textured, Saxon and Gaelic, full of curt nouns that can cut your mouth (gob, sup, gulp, lust) balanced by legato, Latinate verbs that fairly sing (anointing, avenging, inquisitioning). Lynch’s poetic lexicon brilliantly conveys the complex history of Christianity in the British Isles—the legacy of ancient tribal languages forming the foundation of our modern English, then softened by the elegant overlay of church Latin. We hear, as well as see, ourselves in Argyle’s words, for his speech is our own.
The Sin-Eater depicts life lived close to the bone, described in language that is grounded in the material world yet gestures toward the transcendent. Lynch’s paradoxical evocation of this world (and ours) is profoundly sacramental, both in terms of the book’s content and the means of conveyance. It is surely no accident that a central poem of the volume (the 12th out of 24), entitled “Argyle’s Eucharist,” depicts the central sacrament of Christianity, and does so through a scenario that challenges all received notions about the nature of transubstantiation: “Up-right over corpses it occurred to him—/ the body outstretched on a pair of planks,/ the measly loaf and stingy goblet,/ the gobsmacked locals, their begrudging thanks...it came into his brain like candlelight:/ his lot in life like priesthood after all.”
Argyle’s strange vocation is not unlike that of Christ, another outcast, despised and rejected, who took on the sins of his fellow human beings, though Argyle’s version of the sacrament is, admittedly, “a transubstantiation, sleight and feint/ a reconfiguration of accounts/ whereby he took unto himself the woe/ that ought betide the rotting decedent.” Argyle, the Enemy, is thus transformed into Arglye, Priest and Savior, by whose selfless sacrifice “the unencumbered soul makes safe to God.”
This is, perhaps, the most remarkable achievement of Lynch’s book: even as he demystifies the Sin-Eater, he remystifies the nature of sacrament, reminding us of its strangeness and its power. Given the weekly-ness—and even daily-ness—of the practice of Eucharist, it is easy for Catholics to forget how wild this ritual is, easy to forget that many followers left Christ’s side when they heard they must “eat the flesh of the son of man and drink his blood” (Jn 6:53) in order to inherit eternal life. The mystery of the consecration and the miracle of transubstantiation can become domesticated as they are performed on our altars inside our familiar churches by our friendly priests. Thomas Lynch’s poems revivify the ancient Christo-centric practice of “sin-eating,” effectively presenting it to us in a guise we may not recognize, at first—but it is, nonetheless, Eucharist, by any name. Through the agency of Lynch’s powerful poetic language and deep imagination, we glimpse Christ in the Sin-Eater, as well as ourselves, and come to know him in the breaking of the bread.